Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oaxaca II

The past eight months have been tumultuous for Oaxacans, and some say a sharp divide remains amongst fellow citizens. There is disagreement even within some families in the quiet now after the unrest. It is unclear at the moment to what extent the protests will continue. In the meantime, the streets are quiet and a heavy police presence remains (This written yesterday, today a group demonstrators who entered the city clashed with the riot squads still stationed in numbers).

The interviews I will share are not intended to reconstruct a day by day of past events. I think it more interesting to hear some different voices and sort the facts later. I have done my best to capture the residents´ perspectives who did share their experiences and opinions. Many people are reluctant to open up to an inquisitive outsider, and are suspicious of interest, however innocuous, in a political climate that has included too many crackdowns and arrests. Others, whose tales I deemed too paranoid- consistently attributing astoundingly precise execution of ´black ops´ to a government that was inept at every other juncture- to be real, would add little aside from the suggestion that whatever did happen took a heavy toll on the collective psyche.

Going in with the little knowledge I could glean from the press, and with no contacts, I was free to imagine a romanticized version of APPO (The Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), the decentralized coalition in the demonstrations against the governor. I pictured teachers, students, and artists manning the barricades like the Parisians in the summer of 1830, though even the limited coverage the protests received back home suggested the reality of APPO was less than the ideal. I have found people who have maintained most sympathetic views of APPO despite some of the needless mayhem to which they made a contribution. These broad brush stroke accounts, though at times poetic, left little room for subtleties.

It is a strong possibility my less than proficient Spanish detracted from ability to take in the complexities. This is a big reason I left Oaxaca earlier than planned to get my Spanish skills up to speed in one of the ubiquitous and supposedly excellent schools in Guatemala.

By the accounts I gathered at the home of Raul Herrera, a local painter and supporter of APPO, there was no need for nuance in understanding the Oaxacan conflict. A noble battle had been fought, and for the time being, the good guys had lost. Raul´s home and studio that he shared with his wife, also a painter, and two photographers, is situated around a pleasant interior courtyard which seems far removed from the city center at their front door. Herrera´s slightly paunched frame, silvery hair, and deep meditative facial lines, jarred my mental image of the typical protester I expected to encounter from last October’s riots. This graying revolutionary would make a worthy protagonist for any story about a revolutionary movement. Herrera had been in the front line facing the riot shields, and as he brought himself back to the event a fire began burning in his eye.

He delivered his account with the command of an artist in command of his medium. He spoke little as he preferred to let his sketches drive his narrative. The deliberate words he did choose acquired the weight of Zen koans. The Chinese and Japanese influences in his paintings along his speech, appearance, and manner- in which he spiraled around the events in question- all lent him the air of an eastern esoteric. It took some time to get to the subject of the protests. We spoke about Oaxaca and its charms, the galleries, his studio. He’d move closer to the topic of demonstrations, and then would back away.

After explaining that an art movement springing up around the anti-government demonstrations, Raul talked for some time about his methods and influences in art. A few cigarettes later, Raul went for a book that contained his sketches inspired by the demonstrations. His sketches, in ink and charcoal, were in a neatly bound hardcover book. The drawings were minimalist though they captured an astounding range of action and emotion. The first scene showed the masses of demonstrators in a bulging formation that surged towards the fraying police line. The officers were shown holding their shields to protect their backs as they scrambled in disorderly retreat.

¨First we retook the square. Then, they returned in their chariots, ¨ Raul said as he turned the page to show a monstrous armored vehicle from the perspective of the crowd. The reinforced riot squad returned with overwhelming force. The following sketches were busier than the first. The pen strokes were more fragmented. He showed me image after image of broken limbs and writhing bodies. You could hear the bones crunching; smell the teargas as the pages turned.

The more people I talk to, the more I am piecing together something of a consensus that can be drawn from the citizens of Oaxaca. I will attempt to recount this common ground in a later post. In short, the governor has no support, APPO had little organization, let alone leadership, in the streets-- it became a good cause gone awry-- and the presence of hundreds of federal troops is little better than the preceding anarchy. The middle ground here is limited. There are some bitter disagreements over crucial moments in the days leading up to the violent clashes between the federal troops and the protesters.

One of these points, where an American is concerned, is over the death of the American independent journalist Brad Will. The account that Reuters provided, and what was also posted on indie media sites, is that plain clothes officers shot Will while filming at one of the barricades. There is some speculation, however, that he may have been shot by APPO to escalate the crisis.

Later on I’ll provide reflections from two residents whose contrasting stories diverge from the ´consensus´, yet both shed interesting light on the some of the contentious issues as Oaxacans reconstruct the recent past. Click Here to Read More..

Oaxaca Part I

All is quiet in Oaxaca. At the moment it is closer to a ghost town than a traveler’s Mecca, as the preceding months demonstrations have kept the tourists away and sent many locals seeking refuge with friends and family elsewhere. Some hotels have boarded up for the season, and the restaurants that remain open are lucky to have two or three tables’ worth of customers at peak times. The craft bazaars were bereft of buyers. Amazingly, this did not seem to affect market equilibrium. Listless merchants, once engaged in a haggle over a rug or a shirt, sprung to action with a steely enthusiasm that made me look over to shoulder to see if there were really were a dozen other shoppers after the same item.

The only element Oaxaca is not in short supply of at the moment is a police presence, both local and federal. All of the access points into the zocalo, the old town’s main square, and varying intervals along the major roads into the central city are manned by a half dozen flak-jacketed, machine gun bearing troops, with riot shields and batons stacked against the piles of eight foot steel barriers at the ready to cordon off the streets. Last Saturday, on Dia del Reyes, the Mexican day for their equivalent to Santa Claus, the barriers were up. All streets into the zocalo and six blocks around the Santo Domingo church were cordoned off by groups of twenty troops per check point, their riot shields and tear gas canisters in hand. All this bravado for a march of 300 or so men women and children, on their way to a toy giveaway for the children of political prisoners, those who lost their parents, and the kids who live in the public housing complexes around the valley.

It is hard to really get off the beaten track these days, and though Oaxaca is mainstay on the Gringo trail, I have had the rare chance to imagine myself as a solitary wanderer far removed from the backpacking crowd. I had several museums to myself the last few days, and it was nice to take them in as one might a private collection. I was walking to breakfast this morning when I heard the sound of frantic sandals slapping down on the cobblestones behind me.

¨San Francisco Guy, Wait! ¨

I turned to see a set of gangling limbs flailing in my direction. It was a woman from New York I had met at the vegetarian restaurant the day before yesterday. A block and a half beyond her was the cab she must have sprung from upon seeing me, its back door was still open and it was idling in the middle of the street.

¨I thought you might want to check out one of the villages today, you want to go? ¨

I explained that I was on my way to breakfast but she insisted I could just as easily grab a bite at the bus station. The cab dropped us off at the second class bus station where there is line of colectivos, shared taxis that service different villages outside of the city. We found the one marked with our destination in the front window and hopped in the backseat. Normally a colectivo would cram in as many people as possible before setting off, but as there was no one around we only waited a few minutes before he started his engine and the three of us set out. The mountains seemed a lot closer once we got out of the city, and the light and vegetation was not unlike the mountains of southern California. We picked up a few villagers on the way to Ocotlan, and Lia and I chatted about her job in New York, she’s a researcher for a quiz show, and some of her other travels in Mexico.

The driver let us out at a dusty zocalo ringed by dingy shops and a somewhat attractive 16th century church. We wandered into the church and looked at the various saints and ornamentation. In a side chapel there was what looked to be a fake tree wrapped with vines that several women were praying around. The rest of the town was very sleepy. We decided to walk off the square until we hit dirt road. This took three blocks. Before the end of the pavement there was an entrance to a graveyard. Most of the tombs were elevated, the cheaper ones built up with tile, but most had nicer stone, granite and even marble finishes. Some of the structures with columns, porticos, and resident angels and saints, approached the size of the shanties we had seen on the road into the village. There were many elaborate plots for children who didn’t survive their first year. Well over a year’s median income went into many of these displays for the departed, and after a few minutes we ran into what looked to be a grounds crew. In Ocotlan, the dead seemed to sleep more comfortably than the living.
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